Burlington County Times

GOP Cancels House Vote On Health Care Overhaul

Burlington County Times — March 24, 2017

By David Levinsky and Danielle DeSisto, staff writers

After spending most of the last year promising to kill the Affordable Care Act and rewrite America's health care law, President Donald Trump and Republican leaders failed to muster enough votes from their own fractured party to advance their overhaul bill from the U.S. House.

In a stunning legislative defeat, GOP Republican leaders pulled the plug on a scheduled House vote Friday afternoon when it became apparent the controversial legislation would fail due to a lack of support from rank-and-file members.

The embarrassing defeat marked the second time in two days Speaker Paul Ryan abruptly cancelled a vote on the American Health Care Act.

Afterwards, he told reporters the majority party has no immediate plans to revisit the issue and would instead move onto tax reform, border security and other issues.

"We came really close today, but we came up short," Ryan said Friday during an afternoon news conference. "I will not sugarcoat it, this is disappointing day for us. Doing big things is hard."

During a separate news conference at the White House, Trump cast the blame on Democrats and said the minority party now had to own the Affordable Care Act.

"With no Democrat support we couldn't quite get there," he told reporters in the Oval Office. "I think what will happen is that Obamacare unfortunately will explode."

The leaders of the Republican Party had promised for the last seven years to repeal the Obama administration's signature health care law, the Affordable Care Act.

But the proposed repeal-and-replace legislation advanced by the party drew fire from both conservatives and moderates, highlighting fractures within the party and the difficulty of rewriting health care policy.

"Obamacare is the law of the land," Ryan told reporters. "Yeah, we'll be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future."

The vote was expected to occur early Friday afternoon after four hours of floor debate. It was scheduled after White House officials told Republican lawmakers that Trump was done negotiating and would move on to the rest of his agenda, win or lose.

But the president's gamble failed as both conservative and moderate members continued to reject the proposed legislation, which sought to do away with most of the AC A's taxes and penalties, including those against people who don't buy coverage, while maintaining some of its popular components, such as a prohibition against insurers refusing coverage for people with pre-existing conditions and the requirement that parents be allowed to keep adult children on their policies until they turn 26.

The legislation also sought to cap the federal-state Medicaid program for low earners, which the Obama statute had expanded. And while it aimed to provide tax credits to help people pay for insurance or medical bills, those credits were generally smaller than what many Americans received from the ACA.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office predicted the legislation would cause premiums to rise, not fall as Republicans predicted, and a recent poll found that 56 percent of Americans disapproved of the GOP plan. Six out of 10 people also viewed Trump's handling of the issue unfavorably.

Among New Jersey's congressional delegation only Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-3rd of Toms River, said he was prepared to vote in support of the measure.

The other four Republicans — Reps. Chris Smith, R-4th of Robbinsville; Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd of Ventnor; and Leonard Lance, R-7th of Clinton, and Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-llth of Harding — all indicated they planned to vote against the legislation.

After the vote was scuttled, LoBiondo stressed that while he was opposed to the proposed legislation, he was still not in favor of letting the Affordable Care Act remain.

"We need to repeal and replace Obamacare, but we also must meet the standards of what was promised: 'as good or better than what we currently have'," LoBiondo said.

MacArthur, who, as cochairman of the centrist Tuesday Group caucus was deeply involved in negotiations with Trump and other Republican leaders over the bill, said he stood by his efforts to try to improve the legislation.

"When the American Health Care Act was first introduced, I grappled with whether I would support it," MacArthur said Friday. "But I didn't run for Congress to be an obstructionist or to decorate a fancy chair — Washington has enough of those people already — (so) I worked to constructively improve the legislation."

During the last week, he succeeded in convincing Trump and Ryan to add some $90 billion more in federal aid for older Americans to obtain health coverage, and another $75 billion in federal payments to states for older or disabled Medicaid recipients and for maternity and drug treatment.

Although the bill sought to cap federal payments to states for Medicaid in 2020, MacArthur and other centrist lawmakers were able to fend off efforts to convince Trump and Ryan to implement the caps earlier or roll back federal funding for New Jersey and other states that expanded their Medicaid programs through the ACA.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, those changes reduced the expected deficit reduction if the legislation became law, but would do nothing to change a projected 24 million people who would have become uninsured over the next decade.

MacArthur insisted final legislation was a significant improvement over the original bill.

"In total, we committed an additional $165 billion dollars to the most vulnerable among us. But this was never about money. Despite all the fear and confusion over this bill, I worked to make it better for people — those I represent and all Americans," he said.

The debate highlighted the New Jersey congressman's growing influence on Capitol Hill, but placed him in the crosshairs of the bill's opponents in New Jersey who protested weekly outside his constituent office in Evesham.

"Rep. Tom MacArthur was the only New Jersey Member of Congress left willing to support the American Health Care Act today and willing to take health care away from 33,700 of his constituents, including working families, children and seniors, in order to give a $435 billion tax break to the very wealthy and drug and insurance corporations," said Maura Collinsgru, health care program director of the progressive advocacy group, New Jersey Citizen Action. "We are glad his vote did not make the difference with so many other Republicans willing to take a stand against this attempted assault on our health care system."

MacArthur said a fix was still needed for the nation's broken health care system, which has been plagued by rapidly rising insurance premiums and deductibles and insurers dropping out of individual markets because of losses.

"The only way we're going to repair our broken health care system is if we work together to fix the problem," he said. "Just saying no, which requires no effort at all, or pointing the finger of blame at others is of no value. It's time for action together."

Other New Jersey lawmakers and leaders expressed relief that the bill was defeated.

"After seven years of promising, Republicans couldn't pass their so-called health care bill because only two groups would have benefitted: millionaires and undertakers," U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, D-lst of Camden, said. "But I remain concerned the fight to save our health care is far from over. Clearly, the Republican agenda for America boils down to tax breaks for the super wealthy at the expense of our families, and TrumpCare would have literally put millions of lives at risk."

Brian McGuire, associate director of advocacy for AARP New Jersey, and Betsy Ryan, president and CEO of the New Jersey Hospital Association, said the bill's defeat was a victory for health care.

"A lot of people around the country have figured out that this bill was not improving health care for anyone," McGuire said. "It just wasn't something Congress should have gone forward with."

"We're very pleased that it was pulled. From our perspective, it was a big step in the wrong direction," Ryan said, adding that the association was still willing to work on improvements to the Affordable Care Act.

Some Burlington County residents also cheered the bill's demise and that the Affordable Care Act would remain intact for the foreseeable future.

"I am so relieved that this has been pulled from the House," said Karen Beard, of Medford, whose 26-year-old son, Jonathan, obtained health care through the Obama statute's expansion of Medicaid.

"I know my fellow 'people protectors' are breathing a sigh of relief at this time that our friends and loved ones will be able to safely see the doctor and get their medications and treatments without fear for the foreseeable future," she said Friday.

Another county resident, Rosy McCulley, said she was also relieved. She purchases insurance on the individual marketplace and feared the GOP law would make it harder for her to find the same coverage at an affordable price.

"I do feel bad for the people struggling with Obamacare. But for me it has been a blessing," she said. "I'm so relieved that I will still have health care and access to the medicines I need."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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